Emotions are high among families and staff members facing potential closure of their schools in St. Paul, and among board members who will decide the fate of the district's Envision SPPS plan.

Board Member Zuki Ellis, recalling a conversation this week with board colleague Jessica Kopp, said: "Neither of us are sleeping well."

The state's second-largest district opted this week to delay board action on the consolidation plan to Dec. 1. That gives Superintendent Joe Gothard and his administrative team two more weeks to try to secure buy-in on a proposal to close and vacate five schools and uproot students and staffers from another five that would be used for other purposes.

The prospect of buildings sitting empty strikes a blow against the concept of schools being the heart of the community — a goal advanced in a previous districtwide overhaul engineered by former Superintendent Valeria Silva.

This year, the argument has gained new potency in the debate over whether to close Wellstone Elementary on the North End and send its Spanish Dual Immersion students to Riverview West Side School of Excellence. Board Member John Brodrick, who prides himself on his North End and Rice Street roots, said this week: "Rice Street is on the brink. … Rice Street does not need an empty building on the top of the hill right now."

Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer, unveiled the Envision SPPS plan a month ago. Principals were advised at that time to "stay on message" that changes were needed to get the district's elementary schools to a size that ensures all students have access to a well-rounded education that includes specialist teachers in areas like art, music and science.

Families and staff members have the right to speak out, principals were told, and they since have turned out in big numbers for three public hearings before the school board. On Thursday night, speakers objecting to the closings of Wellstone, Highwood Hills Elementary and LEAP High School pushed a scheduled two-hour hearing to nearly three hours.

Stephanie Anderson, a parent with two children at Wellstone, has taken up the fight at two meetings. She also has arranged the distribution of nearly 250 "Save Wellstone Elementary" signs across the city — with most dotting lawns in the North End, Midway and East Side neighborhoods. A sore point for her and others: Wellstone families were not engaged earlier in the process.

"This is unimaginative and sloppy at best, and quite possibly dangerously inequitable and racist," Anderson told board members during the first of her two appearances. Wellstone is 90% students of color.

Wellstone also is emblematic of a challenge facing board members. Envision SPPS is a package with interlocking parts, making it difficult to remove individual schools. For example, kids in Wellstone's Biosmart program would go to science programs elsewhere, in addition to the proposed move of its Spanish Dual Immersion students to Riverview. In 2013, a renovated Riverview served as a centerpiece of sorts for Silva's emphasis on neighborhood schools.

Students in Riverview's community school program would relocate to Cherokee Heights, also on the West Side.

Gothard told board members this week that he'd be against any move to swap in a school that is not already part of the plan.

Board Member Chauntyll Allen said she supports the idea of well-rounded schools. She has spoken of the value of music and the arts to kids who might otherwise lose interest in school. She said she agrees that "drastic" steps are needed in light of the district's enrollment and budget woes, but "something drastic doesn't necessarily have to mean traumatic."

She and others have requested information like a risk analysis of what happens if kids don't go to their new schools, comparisons of projected revenue to buildings and eventual costs of running them, and the potential savings associated with Envision's "right-sizing" of the district. To date, Gothard and his team have stressed that the recommendations are not about saving money but about creating the efficiencies needed to deliver a well-rounded education.

Ellis has countered that if she is to make the case to the public that the proposed changes are "great and foundational," she has to have the data to back it up.

As to the opposition expressed at board meetings, Kopp said she knows people are angry and that the pain is real. She also knows what it feels like, she said, having weathered the potential closure of Hamline Elementary in 2016.

This week, Kopp said she had visited eight schools and that some staff members told her: "This breaks my heart, but I think this has to happen." She couldn't blame them, she added, for not delivering that message at a heated public comments session.

Kopp reminded her colleagues, too, that they had heard from students and parents in June about the importance of music and art programs in Highland Park as well as the poorer parts of the district.

"What are we going to do about it?" she said.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109